Editor’s Note: This review contains minor plot spoilers
So far this season, Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC) has given us a dionysian invasion of suburbia in “Hurricane Diane,” a clever tête-à-tête between genius and madness in “Proof” and a raucous, comical, ensemble-driven whirlwind in “You Can’t Take It With You.” This month, they close the 2022-2023 season with the sharply focused contemporary morality play, “The Lifespan of a Fact.”
The facts of the play are simple. John has written an essay. Emily thinks it is quite good, and wants to publish it, but needs Jim to check it for accuracy. He has five days.
Unfortunately for Jim, John’s relationship with facts is noncommittal, at best. Unfortunately for John, Jim’s relationship with demonstrable truth is steadfast and obsessive. The tumult that ensues is, though predictable, delightfully entertaining.
Jim wastes no time overwhelming himself with how many times the essay strays from the truth. In the first sentence alone he finds four departures. In a matter of days he comes up with 130 pages of comments for a 15-page essay that took John years to craft. With a deadline looming, Emily steps in to mediate the tussle.
The strength of the production is in its acting and direction. Jack Trembath, making his mainstage debut with TRTC, plays Jim with confident, youthful energy. Jim is a newcomer to the publishing world, and Trembath honors the tenacity of the character’s commitment to truth-seeking. With each new allegation of untruth, Jim’s disbelief at John’s lack of concern for facts only grows, culminating in a masterful tirade about a traffic jam, complete with hand-made cardboard diagram and accompanying mathematical calculations.
In the opposite corner, TRTC veteran Owen O’Farrell plays John with calm bravado. O’Farrell navigates the opening jabs to his character’s honesty with laughs and a few jokes. As Jim continues to poke holes in his work, John counters with fury. He defends every word of his essay with the force of a heavyweight boxer.
In the script, John and Jim do not share any words of affection, but on stage there is an undeniable chemistry of animosity. They bicker, banter and bully as though they’ve had a lifetime’s worth of practice. Trary Maddalone LaMée, as Emily, is a worthy intermediary. She reins in each man’s worst impulses, while harnessing their usefulness, all in pursuit of a story worth publishing without fear of legal action. LaMée is powerful when she needs to be, yet vulnerable enough to show a crack or two in her authoritative armor.
Clearly Director Renee Prince has inspired her cast to explore their characters fully and openly. She has also been specific enough in her direction to allow both John and Jim ample opportunities to sway Emily toward their own ways of thinking. By the time the dust settles on the closing arguments, we, the audience, are torn. The result is that the story stays nestled in our thoughts long after the (figurative) curtain has come down.
If the show has any problems, it is in the play’s narrative structure. While Emily Penrose is a fictional character, John is in fact the essayist John D’Agata, and Jim is Jim Fingal, a former fact checker who now, much to our collective relief, designs software for a living. The five-day debate that makes up the bulk of the play was, in fact, a seven-year saga that resulted in the eventual publication of D’Agata’s 2010 essay entitled “What Happens There,” and then in 2012, the subsequent publication of “The Lifetime of a Fact,” a book that details Fingal’s myriad objections to D’Agata’s initial draft.
Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell chose to adapt and condense this years-long collaboration into a five-day slugfest, and, more confusingly, they kept Fingal and D’Agata firmly lodged in their own ideological corners, refusing to concede a word.
The play tasks its audience with answering difficult, relevant questions. What is a fact? Is it the same as nonfiction? What does it take to create a beautiful piece of writing in the age of Chat GPT? Can beautiful words be true? Can true words be beautiful? How far can a writer bend the truth in service of a well-told story before breaking the reader’s trust?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle, of course. D’Agata and Fingal learned this the hard way, spending the better part of a decade arguing before eventually deciding to tell their story in a unique format.
So, if you enjoy thinking and talking about the role facts play in our cultural and journalistic landscape, do not miss “The Lifetime of a Fact” at TRTC. The quality of the acting and direction, despite the limits of the script, will launch you into previously unexplored moral and philosophical territory. The good news is, you won’t be alone.